Canada's Politicians Launch a Masochistic Campaign

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Moments before opposition parties voted to bring down Canada's minority Government Monday night with a vote of no-confidence, the mood in the House of Commons took a jovial turn: The Speaker, Peter Milliken, rose in his black robes to announce that an all-party reception would follow the vote to allow Parliamentarians to "exchange season's greetings." The invitation elicited loud guffaws, because everyone knew it was a dark joke. The only thing seasonal about greetings between the ruling Liberal Party and its main, Conservative opposition has been the frostiness of the exchanges. And now the two sides, with a push from minority parties from the left and right, are launching themselves into what is expected to be a cold, long and brutish election campaign that could have far-reaching consequences for the country. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, having personally been cleared in a recent scandal that tainted his party, will be up against Conservative leader Stephen Harper, who failed once before to unseat Martin and form a new government.

Most of the campaigning, which culminates in a Jan. 23 vote, will be done during the coldest time of year. In the far north, candidates will have to drum up voter enthusiasm in 24-hour darkness and subzero temperatures. The election season will also uncomfortably straddle the winter holidays, which is why the campaign has been lengthened from five weeks to eight. But the clincher, for most Canadians, is that they're being asked to participate in a potentially nasty campaign at a time when they have never been angrier at federal politicians. Despite a healthy economy and bright national prospects, voter cynicism is at an unprecedented high and "confidence in federalism is at historic lows," says pollster Frank Graves of EKOS Research.

Not surprisingly, polls show a widespread desire for change. If these were normal times, that would mean the Liberals would be cowering before the electorate. The party has been in power for 12 years and is now asking for a rare fifth consecutive mandate. The Liberal brand is also suffering because of the lingering stench of the so-called sponsorship scandal, in which a federal program was misused to funnel tax dollars to Liberal-friendly advertising firms—some of whom redirected cash into Liberal coffers in Quebec.

But these are not normal times, and one reason is Conservative leader Harper. Opponents have been able to paint him as a right-wing yahoo who will undo many of social programs so cherished by the left-leaning Canadian establishment. The Liberals' "greatest ally is Mr. Harper," author Andrew Cohen writes in the Ottawa Citizen. Expect the Liberals to try to demonize Harper again this campaign and then expect a tit-for-tat Tory response to degenerate into the sort of political food fight that will only turn off more voters.

None of this would have much long-term consequence if it were not for the reviving separatist threat in Quebec. The secessionist Parti Quebecois last month elected a young and vibrant leader in Andre Boisclair, who has vowed to call a new referendum on Quebec sovereignty at his first opportunity. That could come within two years if his party can defeat the moribund ruling provincial Liberal party in the next provincial election. An acrimonious federal campaign followed by another weak and divided government in Ottawa will not do much for the federalist hopes in Quebec or even national unity in Canada. The situation will, however, afford many more opportunities for dark humor.